Shoplifters centres on the Shibata family, who live in a one-room shack in Tokyo. Although they have Hatsue’s (Kirin Kiki) pension and a few jobs between them, they still don’t earn anywhere near what they need to survive. So they shoplift.
Despite their dire financial situation, when they notice abandoned little Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) – freezing, alone, covered in scars – they adopt her. They welcome her into their tiny home, share their scant supply of food, and initiate her into their petty crime gang. And all goes well for the unconventional family, until it doesn’t.
After last year’s mystery-thriller The Third Murder garnered Hirokazu Kore-eda unusually mixed reviews, Shoplifters sees him back in his comfort zone – the family drama. The film has been sweeping up awards on the festival circuit, most notably becoming the first Japanese Palme D’or winner since 1997.
This is very much familiar territory for Kore-eda. Often hailed as the natural successor to Yasujirô Ozu, no other living director does these dramas so well. He takes your hand and pulls you in gently, giving you a seat at the table. For a couple of hours, you become one of the family.As always with Kore-eda’s work, Shoplifters is studiedly understated. It moves at the pace of life. You might think the shoplifting excursions would be a natural place to insert tension, but more often than not, they are played for laughs. Most of the pleasures of the movie come from little things: Kore-eda regular Kirin Kiki talking with her granddaughter about ‘side-boob’, the kids cheering on a cicada grub as it makes its slow way up a tree trunk, a fireworks display that is listened to rather than watched. Because this film is so subtle, the emotional moments knock you sideways – when Nobuyo (Sakuro Ando) tells Yuri that if they [her real family] “really love you, this is what they do”, and proceeds to give her the biggest bear hug known to man, it’s near-impossible not to shed a tear.
It doesn’t take long for Shoplifters to draw you in to its gentle rhythm, but when the third act rolls around, Kore-eda has a nasty surprise in store. It hits all of a sudden, and it changes everything. Throughout the film, it is kept purposefully muddy just how the Shibatas are related to each other, and it is only in that closing segment that we understand why.
It comes as a jolt, but it’s a bracing jolt. It allows Kore-eda to fully delve into the subject that has always preoccupied him the most: what makes a family a family? Whilst there’s a rich vein of social consciousness running through the whole movie – why do adults with jobs have to steal to survive? why has the abuse of Yuri gone entirely unnoticed by any authorities? – it’s the home stretch of Shoplifters where Kore-eda expresses his message the most clearly. He’s rarely, if ever, been so political, and it’s a joy to see.
Warm and intimate, with a stunner of a kick in the tail, Shoplifters is up there with Kore-eda’s best work. Don’t miss it, and don’t forget your tissues.